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Science Diplomacy and the Arctic Council: A Catalyst for Deeper Regional Cooperation?

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.

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This week, Arctic Yearbook managing editor Heather Exner-Pirot interviews Clemens Binder, author of “Science as Catalyst for Deeper Arctic Cooperation? Science Diplomacy and the Transformation of the Arctic Council” to better understand how the strengthening of scientific cooperation, including the development of an epistemic community, can improve political cooperation and enhance regional stability. 

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: What is science diplomacy?

CLEMENS BINDER: It is a growing political concept of using science as a means of foreign policy. Foreign policy is no longer exclusively hard diplomacy, but can include the exchange of knowledge, the exchange of scientists, and cooperation between states regarding prevalent science issues.

The concept of science diplomacy sees scientific cooperation not as its own policy field but as a sub-field of foreign policy. For example, in the Arctic it strengthens cooperation as a whole and serves as a means of deepening cooperation in other fields—what we call a spillover effect.

HEP: Why do you think science cooperation has become such a big part of the work of the Arctic Council?

CB: The main issues in the Arctic can only be solved through scientific cooperation. Climate change, global warming, marine pollution, and so on are global issues and in order to tackle them you need to work through the national level. Cooperation is important—indispensable—for tackling environmental issues, which will likely be exacerbated in the next few years.

In the short term this might be a problem, as the current U.S. administration doesn’t really believe in climate change. But we will need to address these issues through scientific means to increase liveability and promote our common security.

Despite the public position of the Trump administration, these issues are a priority of all the Arctic countries as we saw in the Fairbanks Declaration. All the Arctic states prioritize climate change, the melting of sea ice and glaciers, and adapting to changes, and there are a lot of possible points where states can connect and work together.

HEP: What kinds of technologies do you think Arctic states and peoples would benefit most from collaborating on?

CB: One issue that’s been prevalent in the Arctic, and has resulted in a legally binding agreement, is search and rescue (SAR). Technologies that can operate in the Arctic environment and that can assist in navigation are good areas for cooperation. There are limits to using satellites in the Arctic that we need to overcome. Facilitating SAR through drone technologies and better navigational systems is one possible field for collaboration.

Another is the fight against pollution—developing new environmental technologies to reduce CO2 emissions and extract resources in an environmentally sound way. Lots of oil firms are conducting research on how to improve extractive methods for Arctic circumstances.

HEP: Can you describe the epistemic community in the Arctic region? How is it unique?

CB: The concept of the epistemic community goes further than institutional cooperation. It describes society as a whole, and the whole of society as an epistemic community built around a shared knowledge that is historically and sociologically produced over a period of time. Knowledge production is at the center of the epistemic community.

The special feature and the shared challenges facing the Arctic states—the environment, resource extraction, security—have common ground based on the scientific work of the Arctic Council and other groups.

It creates similar perceptions of what the problems are, leading to a united approach to address them.

HEP: You argue that cooperation at a scientific level can spill over into other areas. Has this already happened in the Arctic Council?

CB: I don’t think so yet; the Ottawa Declaration [which established the Arctic Council in 1996] includes a ban on military issues and prevents hard security from becoming a topic of discussion. But the new Agreement on Scientific Enhancement, which came into effect at the Fairbanks Ministerial, was a very important first step in institutionalizing scientific cooperation. It will be important under the Finnish chairmanship to strengthen this and look at how it can have a spillover effect.

The Arctic Council has done a tremendous job of deepening cooperation among the Arctic states even though the political environment has been difficult, especially with regard to the relationship with Russia. We’re still seeing scientific cooperation despite this perceived rivalry. Science diplomacy has done a bit of the job, but there are still a lot more opportunities out there to improve cooperation.

Spillover theory developed in the context of Europe explains how over time, cooperation in one field spilled into other fields, and led to the creation of the European Union. The Arctic Council is far from that, but it is becoming a more viable institution to address common Arctic issues. Scientific cooperation is probably the primary way to cause spillovers, but it takes a lot of time. We will have to wait and see how it unfolds in the Arctic.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Clemens Binder is a researcher at the Austrian Institute of International Affairs in Vienna. His focus lies on science, technology. and international relations, especially with a focus on security studies. Binder studied political science in Vienna and Oslo and is currently pursuing a PhD from the University of Vienna. He has published various articles on the intersection of science, technology, and security.

Clemens Binder's article “Science as Catalyst for Deeper Arctic Cooperation? Science Diplomacy and the Transformation of the Arctic Council” can be found here.

This interview was conducted by Heather Exner-Pirot, managing editor of the Artic Yearbook, Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement at the University of Saskatchewan, and a blogger for Radio Canada's Eye on the Arctic. Her interests are in the northern and indigenous health, education and economic development, regional governance, and Arctic Council politics. 

[Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Alaska]

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